The Hidden Religion and Science Conflict

Notice: Originally published March 16, 2016 at The Huffington Post.

More than 150 years have passed since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and we’re still arguing about science and religion. Outrageous public statements from religious and scientific leaders reinforce the impression of endless conflict, whether it’s Richard Dawkins claiming that religion is a “God delusion,” or Pat Robertson suggesting that opponents of Intelligent Design should not expect God’s help when disaster strikes.

Why? Why does it continue? Why do science and religion seem to generate contentious public debate?

Most answers to these questions assume that something about religion or science causes public conflict to become contentious and intractable. Maybe scientists do not understand religion. Maybe religious people do not understand science. Maybe science and religion offer conflicting claims about human origins, life, or truth. Or maybe religion and science are fundamentally different spheres of life, wherein science is concerned with truth and knowledge, and religion is concerned with values and meaning.

If these explanations are right, then we should expect religion and science to be perpetual sources of confrontation, conflict, and unproductive debate. And if these explanations are right, anyone seeking to minimize this conflict should promote dialogue and reconciliation that reduces misunderstanding of science, religion, or both.

But what if the problem isn’t religion or science? What if there’s a deeper, hidden conflict?

For over a decade, I’ve studied religion and science in American public life. I’ve looked at public arguments about topics ranging from human origins and sexuality to environmental policy and stem cell research. As a sociologist and computational scientist, I’ve used research methods ranging from large-scale machine learning to individual interviews with ordinary Americans. And I’ve come to a surprising conclusion:

Public conflict involving religion and science reflects a fundamental conflict over good debate.

Wait, what? Conflict between religion and science isn’t about religion and science? If you’ve only heard about the Scopes Trial, court battles over Intelligent Design, or religious objections to stem cell research, this might seem implausible. But religion and science are huge, complex, multilayered, and rich. They’re involved in many different issues. It’s implausible that a few incidents, however spectacular, illustrate the bigger picture of religion and science in American public life.

To see the bigger picture, I used machine learning techniques to analyze thousands of newspaper articles involving religion and science. What I found surprised me. Actual conflict between public figures rarely occurs. In fact, when prominent religion and science figures like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Richard Dawkins speak out in mass media, they rarely engage one another at all. For them, good debate means advocating their positions and advancing their agendas, not discussing issues with people who disagree with them.

But if public science and religion figures aren’t even talking to each other, why do people ever think that science and religion are in public conflict?

To find out, I interviewed dozens of Americans from different backgrounds and faiths. I asked them to read and respond to things that public figures had said. I asked them what they wanted out of public life. And I found a completely different understanding of good debate. For ordinary Americans, good debate means open, ongoing, and productive discussion among public figures from a variety of perspectives. Religious or not, scientific or not, Americans want public figures to talk to each other, to listen, and to be willing to change their minds about issues.

And that’s where conflict actually happens. Most prominent public figures want to talk about themselves and their agendas. But ordinary Americans want them to discuss issues with one another. When prominent voices on an issue do not engage with each other, and instead trumpet their own arguments in public, many Americans think they are undermining good debate. Surprisingly, this holds true even when people agree with what these voices say about evolution, climate change, stem cell research, or sexuality.

Conflict over good debate isn’t just a problem for religion and science. Many prominent public figures behave this way. And people map the conflict over good debate onto whichever public figures violate their expectations. If religious leaders and gay activists are trying to get their way without engaging each other in discussion, then ordinary Americans think that debate is a conflict between religion and gay activists, even if, say, scientists or politicians are also involved.

But it does affect religion and science. When leading voices are identifiable as religion or science representatives, Americans see religion and science as being in conflict, not because elites are engaged in contentious interactions, but because these public representatives of science and religion appear to undermine good debate. Even more surprising, these public figures then shape what people think about religion and science more generally in American public life. The self-serving behavior of leading religion and science elites poisons the well of public debate for more moderate or deliberate participants.

Foundations and agencies spend millions on dialogue and outreach through programs like the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, or the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge. Such programs are unlikely to do much harm, and may do some good. But if religion and science aren’t the source of conflict, then education and dialogue about religion and science aren’t enough. It’s not just about knowing more, or reconciling incompatible spheres of life. The deeper conflict over good debate remains.

So how can we align conflicting notions of good debate, and focus on solving real problems involving religion and science? The solution is simple. We have to stop thinking of science and religion conflicts as bad outcomes, and start thinking of them as promising beginnings. It’s not as though American public life is usually deliberative, open, and engaged, with religion and science issues raising exceptions. Quite the contrary. In a public sphere marked by disengagement and self-promotion, conflicts signal that something is important enough for people to make the effort to engage, even if that engagement is contentious. Conflicts provide opportunities for better engagement.

This updated view of science and religion conflict should give us hope. Nothing about religion or science automatically makes debate contentious. Once we start paying attention to the conflicts that actually occur, we can start making progress in addressing the science and religion issues that matter to Americans. And since we know that we are all seeking good debate, together we can build a public life that works for all of us.

Michael S. Evans

© Michael S. Evans 2008-2017